INTERNATIONAL football obsessive Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his best bets from Thursday's Nations League action.
Luxembourg v Belarus | Thursday 15th November 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Football in Luxembourg is thriving. In August, F91 Dudelange fought the odds to qualify for the Europa League group stages, seeing off Legia Warsaw and CFR Cluj along the way. In doing so, they became the first club from the landlocked country to reach the main stage of European competition since 1995.
And in September the national side kicked-off their Nations League campaign with their biggest-ever home victory, beating Moldova 4-0. They’ve followed that triumph up with convincing walkover home and away wins against San Marino, as well as an unfortunate 1-0 defeat to Belarus (via a goalkeeping error).
Under Luc Holtz, the landlocked minnows have climbed to 84th in the FIFA rankings having been 148th just six years ago. How? Well steady improvements that have included holding world champions France to a draw, and beating Greece, Albania, Hungary, Belarus and Georgia in recent years.
They might not be Brazil 1970 but the Red Lions are in decent nick and should be well capable of giving Belarus a much sterner examination than their pre-match 2/1 odds suggest. The hosts have remarkably W9-D3-L4 in their last 16 outings – to put that into contest, Luxembourg lost 20 of their 24 previous encounters.
As already mentioned, the boys from the Bourg were undone by a goalkeeping error when the two teams clashed in Minsk and Luxembourg will be relishing a return to their intimate Stade Josy Barthel base for Thursday night’s fixture. Here, the home side are unbeaten since early 2017 bar an expected loss to Austria.
Belarus were beaten here as recently as August 2017 during World Cup qualification, whilst Albania, Hungary, Georgia and Moldova have all departed empty-handed. The Red Lions scored against both France and Netherlands, and gave Sweden a scare en-route to the World Cup and they’re certainly underrated.
The visitors are as short as 7/5 in places, odds that suggest they win this fixture 42% of the time, and that’s just plain wrong. We’ve already discovered the guests lost here less than 18 months ago, and only claimed top honours in the reverse encounter due to an unforced error.
Like Luxembourg, Belarus have enjoyed an unusually prosperous run of results in 2018 but the White Wings predominantly perform to the peak of their powers on home soil. Igor Kriushenko’s charges have won only two away competitive contests since 2010 and scored once in their most recent five road fixtures.
Belarus have a large core of their squad hailing from current domestic champions BATE Borisov, with only seven players based outside of their home country and there’s a fair argument to suggest that comparatively speaking, these nations and rival clubs could be considered at least on a par.
I was surprised to see Belarus chalked up as such strong favourites to succeed so I’ll happily oppose the odds on offer and support Luxembourg in the Double Chance market alongside Under 4 Goals at 4/5 with Bet365’s Bet Builder. We’ll be paid out if the match ends 0-0, 1-1, 1-0, 2-0 or 2-1 in Luxembourg’s favour.
Andorra v Georgia | Thursday 15th November 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Andorra kicked off their Nations League campaign with back-to-back draws against Kazakhstan and Latvia, although any suggestion the 133rd ranked team on the planet were about to enjoy a similar spell of success as Luxembourg was quashed last month following heavy defeats in Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Playing resources remain scarce for the miniscule principality squeezed in between France and Spain beside the Pyrenees. The microstate have rarely been considered competitive; even the two stalemates had a degree of fortune as the Tricolors registered a sole on-target attempt across the two contests.
Andorra’s ambitions rarely change – the minnows set-up in a 4-5-1 system in the aim of keeping things tight and compact to frustrate their opposition before attempting to pinch something from a set-piece. It’s pretty mind-numbing to watch, but it has brought about three triumphs since the start of 2017 at least.
I don’t anticipate such joy on Thursday night, mind. Scottish, Welsh and Irish supporters can vouch for the ability within Georgia’s ranks and the Crusaders have comfortably soared to the top of Nations League Group 1 League D standings following four wins from four, all alongside clean sheets.
The Eastern Europeans have now ran out victorious in seven of their past eight outings, shipping a solitary strike. That rock-solid backline restricted Ireland, Wales and Serbia to no more than one goal in five of their six World Cup qualifiers, whilst also providing plenty of headaches for Germany not so long ago.
As the pre-match odds suggest, Georgia are well capable of putting Andorra away but to make the price worthwhile, I’ll add in Under 3.5 Goals for an 8/11 (SkyBet) play. The Crusaders have scored more than three goals on only three occasions in 12 years.
Greece v Finland | Thursday 15th November 2018, 19:45 | Sky Sports
Few European nations have gone under the radar as well as Finland. Less than two years ago the Eagle-Owls almost dropped out of FIFA’s top-100 ranked nations, but a renaissance under Markku Kanerva has dramatically changed the fortunes of the Nordic nation.
Finland come into November sitting 56th in the latest rankings list with Suomi boasting a magnificent four Nations League wins from four, all achieved alongside clean sheets. However, go back further and the Eagle-Owls have actually churned out W9-D3-L1 since June 2017.
Kanerva’s troops are unbeaten in competitive football since a narrow home World Cup qualifying loss to Ukraine in June 2017. Since, Suomi have beaten the likes of Iceland, Hungary and Greece in meaningful matches, and held World Cup finalists Croatia and Turkey to stalemates.
It’s taken a while for the country to cope with the retirements of their three most capped players in 2010 – Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypia and Jonatan Johansson – but long-term assistant Kanerva was finally given the gig two years ago and has set about changing the mind-set and approach of Finnish football.
For a nation that’s first love is winter sports, it’s not been an easy path to progress. Nevertheless, small steps have ensured a more competitive Finland outfit, particularly in Helsinki, whilst their away performances have gradually improved with excellent efforts even in defeat.
Suomi have only once lost by more than a one-goal margin on their travels under Kanerva in competitive action and were minutes away from beating Iceland away during World Cup qualification and shouldn’t be dismissed when they look to complete the double over Greece on Thursday night.
Finland were clear and deserving 2-0 winners when the two teams met a month ago – the Eagle-Owls won the shot count 17-8 and shots on-target count 6-0 so confidence to repeat the feat shouldn’t be lacking against a Greece side that’s not far away from another crisis.
The hosts were revived under Michael Skibbe’s tutorship and reached the World Cup qualification play-offs before being sliced and diced by Croatia. However, they’ve since tabled only three triumphs from seven, all by 1-0 scorelines with the Pirate Ship struggling to impress in the final-third.
The Euro 2004 champions have scored only four goals in those seven ties and unconvinced when squeezing out the narrowest of victories against Estonia and Hungary. The home side have only twice notched more than a solitary strike since October 2016 (one being against Gibraltar), a concerning return that saw Skibbe replaced by Angelos Anastasiadis.
What’s more, the Pirate Ship have a recent history of flopping in front of their home supporters. Since the 2014 World Cup, the Greeks have sealed top honours in only six of their 20 home encounters (W6-D4-L10) with the unlucky losers being Bolivia, Hungary (twice), Montenegro, Cyprus and Gibraltar.
We can back Finland with a +0.50 Asian Handicap start at 13/15 (188BET), but I’m going to boost the odds to even-money by backing Finland Double Chance and Under 3.5 Goals at Betfair’s Same Game Multi market.
Only two of Finland’s past 22 matches have featured more than three goals, while 17 of Greece’s last 19 produced fewer than four goals with their last eight seeing a total of only 11 goals. We'll make money should Finland avoid defeat via 0-0, 1-1, 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2 correct scores in Athens.